WASHINGTON — Florida's new death penalty sentencing statute — to the extent that it allows juries to recommend death on a vote of 10-2 — is unconstitutional, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a pair of cases on Friday.
Further, the state high court ruled that the death sentence of the man whose case led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Florida's old death penalty sentencing scheme to be declared unconstitutional in January is no longer valid. The justices tossed out Timothy Lee Hurst's death sentence on Friday and sent his case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.
The decisions in Hurst's and Larry Darnell Perry's cases put new death penalty trials on hold while the state's legislature and executive branch decide how to respond to Friday's ruling.
The decision means that those on Florida's death row whose death sentences, like Hurst, have still not been finalized on direct appeal will be able to seek resentencing under the process laid out on Friday in Hurst's case.
As to others previously sentenced to death in Florida — the state has the second largest death row in the nation, with nearly 400 people awaiting execution — Friday's decisions did not address the outstanding question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision will apply retroactively.
Hurst had asked for his sentence to be converted to a life sentence, but the Florida justices rejected that request — ruling that such a move would only be appropriate under Florida law if "capital punishment as a penalty is declared unconstitutional generally."
The Florida court found on Friday that was not the situation in Hurst's case, characterizing the U.S. Supreme Court decision as "focused ... on [a] portion of the capital sentencing process."
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the old statute, it did so because the state relied on "a judge’s factfinding" and not "a jury's verdict" to sentence a person to death.
The Florida legislature passed a new statute, addressing the requirement that jurors make the sentencing decision. The new law, however, allows a non-unanimous decision of the jury — here, 10 of 12 — to impose a death sentence on a person.
The Florida Supreme Court on Friday held that is not permitted.
"[W]e hold that the Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida requires that all the critical findings necessary before the trial court may consider imposing a sentence of death must be found unanimously by the jury," the court ruled in Hurst's case.
This, the court explained, included not just the existence of aggravating circumstances during the sentencing phase of a capital case, but also the sufficiency of those aggravating circumstances and the finding that those aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating circumstances.
Going further still, the court held that, "based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury's recommended sentence of death must be unanimous."
The court went on to hold that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment also requires unanimity in sentencing recommendations of a jury.
Because Florida's new statute allows a 10-2 vote for the recommendation of death, the court held, the law is not constitutional. In Larry Darnell Perry's case, the court summarized it as such: "While most of the Act can be construed constitutionally under our holding in Hurst, the Act’s 10-2 jury recommendation requirement renders the Act unconstitutional."
In deciding how to handle Hurst's case going forward, the justices first declined Hurst's request to convert his death sentence automatically to a life sentence.
Hurst had pointed to a state law requiring such an action if the death penalty is declared to be unconstitutional. The Florida court, however, concluded, "Hurst v. Florida was decided on Sixth Amendment grounds and nothing in that decision suggests a broad indictment of the imposition of the death penalty generally."
As such, the justices found, that state law does not apply and it considered, instead, whether the January decision meant that Hurst should allowed to have a new sentencing hearing. That review usually entails a "harmless error" analysis — basically, might the error (here, an unconstitutional death sentencing law) have made a difference?
Hurst argued that a harmless error analysis wasn't appropriate here because the U.S. Supreme Court had identified a "structural" error that "results in a proceeding that is always fundamentally unfair."
The Florida justices disagreed, finding "that Hurst v. Florida error is capable of harmless error review." Nonetheless, it described a bar that most people sentenced to death under that pre-January sentencing statute would appear to cross: "Where the error concerns sentencing, the error is harmless only if there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the sentence."
The Florida Supreme Court concluded that "the error in Hurst’s sentencing has not been shown to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" and, accordingly, vacated his death sentence and sent his case back for a new sentencing proceeding.